Lawyers are all about camaraderie, civility and coin tosses
The legal profession. All good? Maybe not all, at least according to some observers, such as Shakespeare, who said something like, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I retired about five years ago after spending more than 40 years in the Ontario court trenches, and I would now like to share some thoughts on what’s good about our profession.
First, there is a sense of camaraderie among lawyers—even extending to soon-to-be lawyers.
We are generally happy to come across other brothers and sisters of the profession. I worked my way through law school at McGill University, spending summers as a Montreal tour guide for the Gray Line sightseeing company. While passing the main courthouse, I would mention that I was a law student. Invariably, my guests often included lawyers.
At a scheduled stop, some would approach me and offer encouraging comments such as, “You’ll will be in for quite an experience” or “Ours is a noble profession.” I recall one lawyer from St. Louis giving me his business card, saying to give him a call if I were ever in St. Louis. I still have his card after about 50 years. You never know. Renewing our ties is on my bucket list. I suppose this invitation adds another dimension to the film title Meet Me in St. Louis.
I also found that after revealing my law student status, the lawyers were my best tippers. I wondered whether this professional courtesy applied to other callings. When I had any organized professional group on my bus, I considered letting it be known I was studying to be one of them. I recall once guiding a group of undertakers. I was tempted to blurt out something like, “I am spending my summers working my way through the College de Quebec des Mortuaires,” but I resisted this temptation. There is no such college, but to this day, I’ve often wondered how generously undertakers tip their own.
Fortunately, the camaraderie among the bar is present even during heated litigation. Shakespeare also said, “Do as adversaries in law, strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” I once had an opponent colleague invite me for lunch during a trial break. My client, originally from Hungary, was surprised and taken aback, saying in Hungary the opposing lawyers would never socialize during a trial. Presumably, this comment was anecdotal. I never checked it out further by Googling something akin to “Hungarian lawyers/trial/lunch practices.”
However, to alleviate my client’s concerns, I took a rain check on that lunch. I did not think it would be helpful to tell him what Shakespeare said about eating and drinking as friends. The client might then have gotten more suspicious and have reminded me about Shakespeare’s other comment about lawyers.
Another quality we possess is empathy for our colleagues. I once received a shocking phone call from a lawyer saying I had misadvised a former client and he was going to sue me for malpractice. Expressing the professional empathy I expected, he said, “We’ll have to start an action against you soon. However, I do not relish this case.”
I sensed he sincerely meant that relish part. His obvious empathy made me feel better.
The good news was that I was able to cobble together some information that would exonerate me. Before sending it to him, I called to give him a heads up, saying, “Syd, I am sending you some info proving your client has no case. He may not relish this news.”
I proudly can say my professional empathy here extended even to his client. And given that Syd did not relish suing me, indubitably, he and I both relished the outcome.
Another positive trait we possess is the pursuit of civility. Even in the heat of a trial in Canada and other British Commonwealth countries, we generally refer to opposing counsel as “my friend “or sometimes the more elevated version, “my learned friend.”
Given the circumstances, we may feel like deviating from this respectful address. But in my decades of practice, I never saw or heard of a lawyer straying from civility and launching a tirade of anatomical- or biological-based remarks toward an opponent. Nor did I ever hear of a barrister in a British court approaching opposing counsel and yanking off their wig.
Ours is unlike any other calling—particularly sports. I am an avid hockey fan, complete with players skating at great speeds deliberately crashing into one another with body checks. These incidents often result in fisticuff scuffles. You never hear what they shout at one another, but I doubt either one addresses the referee remarking, “Mr. Referee, this notable gentleman charged at me, almost propelling me over the boards. I do object.”
Make no mistake about it, there are times in a courtroom when we would like to put on that hockey sweater and follow some beckoning instincts, but civility prevails.
Which gets me to honesty and integrity.
Notwithstanding some public opinion, most of us are as straight as the proverbial arrow. I once, during my early months of practice, had a case with a very difficult colleague, one Williams, who had a reputation for being a bully. We both wanted to adjourn a court motion set for the next morning.
However, the rule was that given the late hour, one of the lawyers had to actually attend court and advise the judge of the adjournment request. The regional courthouse was out of town, it was a nasty winter week and neither of us wanted to make the trek. I phoned Williams, and with the expected magnanimity, he demanded that I go.
I suggested we flip a coin and the would loser go. He hesitated and replied “OK,” but only if he flipped the coin in his office. I suspected what that meant. He also insisted on calling the toss. He was adamant, and I agreed. I heard him call “heads.” I expected his next words to be, “Heads it is. Trust me. Enjoy your trip.”
But to my surprise, his coin toss was followed by a couple of expletives. They rivaled anything those hockey players might utter. He made the court appearance—I guess he did not relish losing the coin toss.
Though I was saved from having to attend, witnessing his act of integrity was my bigger prize. Williams was an honest bully.
Our profession has much to be proud of. Our Rules of Professional Conduct include provisions dealing with advocacy, civility and competence. I am especially impressed with the commentary on integrity, which reads, “A lawyer’s conduct should reflect favourably on the legal profession, inspire the confidence, respect and trust of clients and of the community, and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” In other words, we have not only to be good but also always look good. The world counts on us for some justice. I’m sure we all welcome this mantle of honor.
In retrospect, I’m glad I never told those undertakers I was spending my summers working my way through the College de Quebec des Mortuaires.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.